With the arrest of alleged “homegrown” Muslim terrorists in the GTA, a long-overdue examination of multiculturalism in Canada might well now occur.
This is necessary, for any public policy unexamined over time turns into dogma and invariably becomes counterproductive.
The idea of multiculturalism perhaps was once benign, reflecting the mood and circumstances of an era that has now grown dim in memory.
It is nearly four decades since Montreal held Expo ‘67, and Canada celebrated its centenary with much optimism. Forty years later, the country has evolved and changed, and this change is reflected in the rainbow spectrum of new Canadians that is most visible in our cities.
A country rich and vast opened its doors to the world, and new immigrants arrived from continents other than Europe. They settled in urban Canada and incrementally added new cultural dimensions to a country that had been primarily European and Christian.
Their arrivals coincided with old quarrels between English Canada and French Quebec turning into new confrontations and threatening the country’s unity. Yet in the afterglow of the centennial celebrations, Canada’s liberal imagination took flight.
There was a new prime minister from Quebec who was perfectly at ease in both English and French. Pierre Trudeau’s charm captured the mood and music of the period and the desire of Canadians, especially those outside of Quebec, to be seen as different from their southern neighbour (the U.S. was then awash in troubles with an unpopular war in Vietnam and civil-rights-related conflicts at home).
Multiculturalism, an officially conceived and designed policy administered by Ottawa, became a not-so-subtle nudge to unmoor Canada from its historical connections with Britain and the United States.
Canada’s past was that of a colony, not a colonizing power such as Britain and France. European immigrants built this country, shaped its democratic values, fought for its freedom, and celebrated its achievements.
The push during the Trudeau years to make Canada a “middle power”—neutral in world affairs, distancing itself from Washington and London while embracing Communist China and Cuba as new found friends, and echoing uncritically the grievances of former European colonies in Africa, Asia and South America—complemented the policy of multiculturalism at home.
Citizenship requirements were reduced by the Trudeau government, from a minimum of five years of residence to three, and the effect of opportunistic legislation was to make of new immigrants loyal voters for the Liberal party.
Multiculturalism was seen as progressive, and Trudeau Liberals determined to make the new Canada become “progressive” at home—and a helpful fixer or neutral broker between the wealthy and the poor of the world.
Anyone publicly doubting the wisdom of multiculturalism needed courage to risk being branded reactionary in a “progressive” Canada. But unintended consequences of even the noblest idea cannot be hidden for long.
Hugh MacLennan (1907-90), the celebrated author born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, wrote about the difficult relationship between English and French in Two Solitudes (1945). Neil Bissoondath, a new immigrant writing some four decades later, could observe in his book Selling Illusions (1994) that multicultural Canada had transformed into a land of multiple solitudes.
As we politely enjoyed each other’s music and cuisines, new immigrants learned less about the country they adopted as home—and less was demanded of them from a country increasingly preoccupied by its threatened breakup.
We cannot return to the years before 1967. But we can no longer deceive ourselves about building a secure and prosperous country while indulging ourselves as polite strangers in a Canada soaked with multicultural illusions.